Feature Stories 2017: Rachel Allen: PhD in Nursing

Rachel Allen at work
Feature Stories 2017: Rachel Allen: PhD in Nursing
Rachel Allen: PhD in Nursing

Rachel Allen, PhD '18 is the first UMass Dartmouth recipient of a Jonas Center Nursing Scholarship.

Passion for helping others

I knew I wanted to be in a helping profession, either a teacher or a nurse, so I volunteered doing both while in high school. I was also intensely curious about the way things work, and I’ve always been a people person. That combination translated into wanting to help people and know how the human body works.

In nursing school, I discovered I love the most intense parts of the profession—the operating room and the ICU—where the inner-workings of the human body are most apparent.

Intersection of neurology & psychology

I applied to a mentorship program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital that trained new nurses to work in ICUs. During my time in the neurology ICU, I was most drawn to the cases where neurology and psychology melded together, and the differences between the brain and the mind were ambiguous.

I had a patient with Conversion Disorder, a psychiatric illness that mimics a neurological illness. Because it was difficult to tease out the neurological and psychiatric components from each other, a team-based approach to diagnostic clarification and appropriate treatment was required.

As a result of my experiences, I applied for graduate programs to become a Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner. Since becoming an NP, I’ve worked at a residential faculty with child victims of trauma and in a pediatric neurology practice helping children and adolescents with mental health concerns and neurological conditions.

After moving to Rhode Island, I entered the National Health Service Corps to help with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act in community health care. I worked at a patient-centered medical home where behavioral health was integrated into primary care. I was the Psychiatric NP on an interdisciplinary team that provided primary care, women’s health services, dental care, and behavioral health care.

UMassD: the "perfect fit"

I'm now in the Nursing PhD program at UMassD, and I love the faculty. I feel consistently encouraged to be creative and progressive in my research. When applying, I considered a number of programs, but UMass Dartmouth was the only one that had a significant emphasis on becoming a nurse scientist educator, in addition to a researcher. I feel fortunate to have found the perfect fit for my skillset and interests.

Rachel Allen with Prof. Kristen Sethares
Photo: Rachel Allen, right, with Prof. Kristen Sethares

Research on effects of deinstitutionalization

My interest in the deinstitutionalized movement is a result of viewing our current mental health care system from a number of sides. I’ve worked with children, adolescents, and adults in public health and private practice, hospital and outpatient settings, and in psychiatry, neurosurgery, and neurology.

I discovered that many of the problems facing mental health care today are repercussions of decisions made between the ‘60s and ‘80s. Much of what has become standard in the mental health care system has to do with the legacies of institutionalization and deinstitutionalization.

At the same time, standard practice in the sciences is to foreground recent publications—articles and journals published within the last 3-5 years—when undertaking research. As a result, researchers tend to have very short memories.

This can be a good thing when it comes to specific treatments, but limiting when it comes to more decontextualized systemic issues. I think our current mental health care system could be vastly improved if we were to take the time to situate our health care system within a broader social, political, economic, and historical understanding.

Plans of becoming a professor

I currently work at a small outpatient practice in Cranston. After I graduate, I’ll likely apply for a post-doctoral fellowship in nursing history to further develop my research. I intend to become a college professor of nursing and work part-time in public mental health care with underserved populations.

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